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Competent but underwhelming tale by a usually fantastic author
on 8 July 2013
As a big Neil Gaiman fan, it pains my to say this, but if I were to sum this book up in one word, it would be "underwhelming." Or possibly "underdeveloped."
Don't get me wrong, it's by no means awful, and there are a few very good things about it. It's just that it's not a patch on most of the rest of his work and if it was my first exposure to this usually brilliant author, I don't think I'd be in a particular rush to try another of his books. It's definitely more reminiscent of the fairly homely Coraline than the epic American Gods or Sandman series.
First, the good. The prose is inevitably lovely. Gaiman surely has one of the best styles of anyone writing in genre fiction. The sense of creepiness, even terror, is wonderfully created. Parts of the book I found as psychologically terrifying as the most full-blown horror novel. Without giving too much away, there's a section where the narrator is trying to leave his house to get help and is constantly foiled which is just a masterclass in ratcheting up the tension.
To some degree, he also creates a good sense of time and place (rural Britain in the seventies) but I thought this could have been developed further. I got the impression that the story could have taken place anywhere and would have enjoyed a bit more linking to local myths and landmarks, in the way you get with Alan Garner or Susan Cooper, or to seventies issues, like in The Rotters' Club or Black Swan Green.
The book apparently started life as a short story and it really shows. Partly, this is a simple length issue. It can't have been more than about 60 000 words and while sometimes short novels can work (the Great Gatsby is this sort of length and an undisputed classic) in this instance I felt it was over before I'd really had time to bond with the characters.
One of Gaiman's greatest strengths is his ability to weave myths and folklore into his stories, but here, the mythos felt oddly superficial. I didn't quite get what the Hempstocks were meant to be (other than yet another example of the Mother/Maiden/Crone concept) or why, if they were as powerful as they seemed, they were living quietly on a Sussex farm. I'd loved to have had more of their backstory and perhaps a bit of their point of view. Having come up with what appeared to be fascinating and original characters, they are horribly underused, and I felt the same to a lesser extent about the two supernatural enemies.
In conclusion, this is definitely worth a read, but if you're a Gaiman fan, maybe adjust your expectations downwards a little and if you've never read him before, start with another book or you might wonder what all the fuss is about. It's an entertaining, well-written and scary read but it's lacking the substance that would elevate it above that. If nothing else, I'd wait for the paperback to come out and the price to drop as it's far too short to justify the current price-tag.